Hancock is 21st Ohio county to approve syringe programs
Effort will reduce HIV, Hepatitis C, overdose death among people who use drugs
Ohio’s newest syringe service program opened in Findlay on Thursday, July 30th, at the Hancock County Public Health Department.
Hancock County joins 21 other Ohio counties that have started syringe programs (sometimes called “needle exchanges”) to reduce the spread of HIV, hepatitis and other infectious diseases among people who inject drugs. Research also shows these programs reduce overdose death and increase the number of people seeking treatment for drug use problems.
The new Hancock County program is especially impressive because it opened despite logistical challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has forced some Ohio syringe programs to trim, at least temporarily, services or hours. The Hancock County program, located in the city of Findlay, is the first new syringe program of 2020.
The Hancock County program is called the Bloodborne Infectious Disease Prevention Program (BIDPP), based on the name given to syringe programs in Ohio law. The program operates Thursdays from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at the health department building, located at 2225 Keith Parkway in Findlay. (The building is next to the local Social Security office and used to house the Rolling Thunder Rollerskating Rink.)
Program coordinator Gary Bright says the program’s dates and locations may change due to the department’s limited nursing staff and changing requirements of COVID-19. For now, though, BIDPP will provide sterile syringes, sharps disposal containers, Narcan, fentanyl test strips, condoms and other supplies from the health department’s building.
The program does not yet provide on-site HIV or Hepatitis C testing but will help schedule people for those tests off-site.
The program will follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention best practices closely. Program participants are not required to bring used syringes to exchange for new sterile syringes, for example. Many Ohio syringe program operate this way, as exchange programs rather than as health service programs, contrary to CDC guidelines. Some Ohio programs, by limiting the number of sterile syringes people receive to how many used ones are brought in, cause people to carry around used syringes (rather than safely discarding them) and incentivize people to re-use or share unsterile syringes with others.
At the new Findlay program, participants can take home as many sharps disposal containers as they need for at-home disposal, eliminating the need to hang on to non-sterile needles and syringes.
The need in Findlay
The new Hancock County program will be the first infectious disease prevention program in rural northwest Ohio. The closest syringe programs now operating are in Toledo to the north and Marion to the south. Both are about 50 miles from the new program in Findlay.
Hancock County has a population of about 75,000, reports the Census Bureau. Findlay, the county’s largest city, has a population of 41,300 and is the corporate headquarters of Cooper Tire and Rubber. The city also is home to a Whirlpool Corp. dishwasher manufacturing plant that is believed to be the largest dishwasher factory in the world.
In Hancock County, sheriff deputies carry Narcan, but local police do not, making it crucial for the health department and its new syringe program to provide Narcan to the high-risk population of people who use drugs. Since January 1, 2017, at least 75 residents of Hancock County have died of drug overdoses, reports the Ohio Department of Health.
In Hancock County, emergency responders, fire departments, local recovery centers, and the local hospital also offer Narcan. Likewise, free Narcan or intramuscular naloxone can be ordered online here from Harm Reduction Ohio, a statewide effort backed by the Ohio Department of Health that covers all 88 Ohio counties.
In the future, the BIDPP clinic hopes to offer Hepatitis C and HIV testing on site to participants. Their staff will also provide referrals to treatment, health care and other resources for participants who desire additional help.
People who made the program happen
Jamie Decker, a certified peer support specialist and a member of the Harm Reduction Ohio Board of Directors, works at the syringe program and will provide assistance to participants, especially those who feel most comfortable talking to a person, such as Jamie, who once struggled themselves with drugs themselves.
Jamie, as a Findlay native and harm reduction advocate, attended a meeting at the public health department more than two years ago with harm reduction legend Tino Fuentes and Harm Reduction Ohio President Dennis Cauchon in which preliminary discussions of starting a syringe program began.
Gary Bright joined the health department as Injury Prevention Coordinator last year and has worked tirelessly on launching the program since then. Gary is a licensed social worker who also has a master’s degree in pubic administration.
Health Commissioner Karim Baroudi and Chad Masters, director of health promotion and planning, also deserve credit for making this program happen. Both attended the original meeting in 2018 and were extremely thoughtful and well-informed from the beginning.
And, lastly, Ohio law requires that all syringe programs, once rare and controversial in Ohio, be approved by local health boards, so the Hancock County Board of Health deserves applause for approving this crucial public health intervention that is recommended by the CDC and the Ohio Department of Health but sometimes falls victim to stigma in rural Ohio.
Nancy Moody-Russo — a lawyer, nurse and clinical coordinator of the Physicians Assistant program at the University of Findlay — is President of the Hancock County Board of Health (apparently in her spare time!)